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Teachers unions are ‘thrilled’ by Gov. Cuomo’s education agenda, but school funding remains in play

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Just three years ago, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was locked in a ferocious policy battle with the powerful state teachers union, he mocked those whose only idea to improve schools is “more money, more money, more money.”

All that extra funding had ever achieved, he said then, was mediocre academic results, “a larger and larger bureaucracy and higher salaries.”

But now, as Cuomo prepares to seek a third term this fall and eyes a potential presidential bid in 2020, he’s changed his tune.

In his agenda-setting State of the State speech last week, he proposed a slate of uncontroversial, union-friendly education proposals — the continuation of a yearslong shift away from the controversial policies involving teacher evaluations, charter schools, and other issues that put him at odds with teachers unions in 2015.

Most significantly, he’s dropped the argument that New York gets too little in return for the amount it spends on schools, instead calling last week for the state to continue its “historic investment in public education.”

However, it remains to be seen whether his rhetoric will translate into a big boost in dollars. The state faces a budget crunch and looming federal spending cuts, which has Republican lawmakers calling for fiscal restraint. Meanwhile, advocates question how serious Cuomo is about sending more money to schools.

So far, we have no reason to think the reality of his budget will meet the rhetoric,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education.

Despite his past wariness about unchecked education spending, Cuomo has actually expanded that part of the state’s budget over his two terms as governor.

Last year, he negotiated a $1.1 billion hike in state education aid, which he touted as the “largest investment in the history of the state.” Over the past seven years, he has boosted school spending by more than $6 billion to $25.8 billion last year — its highest level ever, a Cuomo spokeswoman pointed out.

However, advocates are still smarting from Cuomo’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt last year to make changes to a formula designed to funnel money to high-poverty school districts. Advocates said the changes would have allowed the state to withhold funding that those districts are owed under a decade-old lawsuit, but officials disputed that claim and said the governor still planned to give high-needs schools their due.

In last week’s speech, Cuomo railed against “funding inequities” and called for increased aid to poor districts. However, last year’s battle over the funding formula has left advocates doubting Cuomo’s sincerity.

“So far with him, school aid has been an exercise in the ‘hunger games’,” Easton said. “If he’s just going to give a little more to the neediest districts but still leave them way underfunded, then he’s just playing games.”

State officials said any suggestion that the governor has underfunded schools is “patently false.”

If school-funding advocates remain leery of Cuomo, the teachers unions — once the governor’s fiercest enemies — have mostly made peace with them as they rally around a common enemy: President Trump and his allies in Congress.

“We’ve had differences in the past. We’ve had fights with him,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of New York City’s teachers union. But they are now united in their opposition to President Trump’s agenda, which he called “an existential threat to our core principles.”

“We’re working together,” said Andy Pallotta, president of the state teachers union, in a separate interview. He said the union is “thrilled” with Cuomo’s move in their direction.

Cuomo and the state legislature must still hash out this year’s budget, the largest chunk of which traditionally goes to schools. So far, state Republicans, who control the senate, have sent mixed messages on spending.

Carl Marcellino, who chairs the senate education committee, told Politico New York: “For the most part, education will continue to grow.” But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has urged caution about increasing spending. On Tuesday, he proposed a series of tax cuts, which could restrict revenue to the state.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s budget negotiations, some observers remain skeptical that Cuomo is truly committed to a labor-backed education agenda centered on increased spending.

“I’m not sure that he’s more progressive — I think he’s simply highlighting a more progressive agenda,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “To my mind, he’s the same old Cuomo.

teachers on the ballot

Jahana Hayes, nation’s top teacher in 2016, may be headed to Congress after primary win

2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes answers questions from reporters after being honored at the White House. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jahana Hayes, the 2016 national teacher of the year, is one step closer to Congress.

Hayes, who would be the first black Democrat elected to Congress in the state, won the Democratic primary in Connecticut’s fifth district on Tuesday. Her bid is the most high-profile example of efforts by teachers across the country to win elected office this year, with many dissatisfied over their pay and education policies like evaluations and voucher programs.

In an interview with Chalkbeat in May, Hayes said she decided to run because she believes she can represent the interests of students like hers: “I kind of just had an epiphany, like, who’s going to speak for them?”

Hayes taught history and civics in Waterbury Public Schools, a largely low-income district. Her campaign has embraced her upbringing, including her past homelessness and teen pregnancy and her role as a teacher in the district she grew up in.

“Despite being surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence, my teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope,” she said.

Hayes faced Mary Glassman, who ran for lieutenant governor twice and worked at Capitol Region Education Council, which operates magnet schools in Hartford.

Hayes ran on a solidly progressive platform, embracing universal healthcare, free college, and a $15 minimum wage.

When it comes to education, though, she has been light on policy details. Asked about what specifically she’d hope to accomplish in Congress, Hayes told Chalkbeat, “I know that I can bring a perspective and knowledge and expertise in that area that is critical. If we start to dismantle public education now, I don’t know how we’ll ever rebuild it.”

On the hot-button issue of school choice, Hayes stumbled on a question about vouchers, appearing to confuse the concept with charter schools. Ultimately, she said, “A charter system can still be public and continue to support the public education system. I think as we increase the number of vouchers that are provided, it takes away from the public school system.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Hayes said she would work with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has been the focus of opposition for many teachers.

“I need for the secretary of education to be successful because if she’s successful that means kids are thriving,” Hayes said. “I would welcome the opportunity to work very closely with her, to share ideas, to just be at the table to give a different perspective, to give some insight into what is happening on the ground.”

To reach Congress, Hayes still must win the general election. Connecticut’s fifth district is the most competitive one in the state, according to Cook Political Report. Hillary Clinton won the district by 4 percentage points in 2016.

She will face Republican Manny Santos, a former mayor of Meriden, Connecticut.

Hayes was not the only teacher to win a primary bid on Tuesday. In Wisconsin, Tony Evers, the state’s school superintendent and a former teacher and principal, will face Scott Walker in the race for governor. And in Minnesota, Congressman Tim Walz, who was a high school geography teacher and football coach, won the Democratic governor’s primary.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Hayes would be the first black person elected to Congress in Connecticut; in fact, she would be the first black Democrat.

Mended Fences

Despite earlier attack ads, Colorado teachers union endorses Jared Polis for governor

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s largest teachers union has endorsed Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The endorsement is not a surprise given that teachers unions have traditionally been associated with the Democratic Party. However, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association had previously endorsed one of Polis’ rivals during the primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and contributed money toward negative ads that portrayed Polis as a supporter of vouchers based on a 2003 op-ed, in spite of votes in Congress against voucher programs.

With the primary in the past, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert focused on Polis’ support for more school funding, a priority shared by the union.

“Our members share Jared’s concern that too many communities don’t have the resources they need for every child to succeed,” Baca-Oehlert said in the press release announcing the endorsement. “We have created ‘haves and have-nots’ among our children, and nowhere is that more apparent than with our youngest students who don’t receive the same level of quality early childhood education. Jared impressed us with his strong commitment to give all kids a great start and better prepare them for a successful lifetime of learning.”

Polis has made expanding access to preschool and funding full-day kindergarten a key part of his education platform, along with raising pay for teachers.

Polis is running against Republican Walker Stapleton. As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the public employee retirement system, including freezes on benefits and cost-of-living raises, that were opposed by the teachers union, something Baca-Oehlert made note of in the endorsement of Polis.

Read more about the two candidates’ education positions here.